Hacking Abortion Access

Kate Bertash and other organizers of the Abortion Access Hackathon

Portrait of Kate Bertash, by Gretchen Röehrs Kate Bertash, by Gretchen Röehrs

Everyone, or someone they know, has had an abortion. The most recent data suggest that nearly one in three American women has one before the age of forty-five; most of these women already have children. But the election of Donald Trump and Mike Pence has emboldened Republicans to begin a wave of attacks on reproductive rights.

Between Election Day and the inauguration, Oklahoma introduced a law that would ban abortion as soon as a fetal “heartbeat” can be detected—usually around four weeks after fertilization, before many women know they are pregnant. Texas pushed ahead a bill that would require women and hospitals to bury the fetal remains in the case of abortion or miscarriage. On his first day in office, Trump signed the Mexico Act, ending aid to any NGO that so much as discusses abortion abroad. Mike Pence became the first sitting vice president and highest ranking official ever to address the March for Life in Washington, DC. Trump has cleared the way for states to end all funding to Planned Parenthood. Legislators in Oklahoma introduced a bill that would require women seeking abortions to obtain written permission from the father of the child. “I know they feel like it’s their body,” Republican Justin Humphrey said, “but it’s a host.”

With the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, Roe v. Wade itself may be in danger. So far, however, threats to access have proceeded piecemeal. Rather than contest the fundamental right to privacy between a woman and her doctor that was the basis of the 1973 ruling, anti-choice activists have tried to create obstacles and inconveniences. Given that 75% of American women who seek abortions live under the poverty line, long distances to travel, mandatory waiting periods, and unnecessary additional procedures pose a serious obstacle to access.

On the first weekend of March 2017, over two hundred volunteers gathered at the GitHub headquarters in San Francisco to respond in kind: they held an Abortion Access Hackathon to develop tech-powered “subversions and workarounds.” Most of them were women.

The inaugural Abortion Access Hackathon had taken place in September 2016 at UC Davis, organized by sisters Emily and Somer Loen and Shireen Whitaker, who knew one another from volunteering at a Sacramento reproductive justice organization. Like the first hackathon, the weekend at GitHub focused on the needs of “abortion funds”—grassroots organizations that provide funding and logistical support to women in need. Despite the greater name recognition of Planned Parenthood, the majority of abortions are still performed by the kinds of local clinics to which abortion funds send women.

The User Research Study that volunteers conducted with abortion funds, clinics, and the public before the hackathon identified a few primary categories of needs:

  • Before the procedure: Funding, outreach, staff training, pre-care, travel logistics and policy advocacy.
  • After the procedure: Post-care, payment, and record-keeping.

One of the most urgent demands, Abortion Access Hackathon organizer Kate Bertash emphasized, is better security. Last year, the annual “bowl-a-thon” to raise funds for the National Network of Abortion Funds was hacked—exposing personal information that endangered donors and volunteers, and causing a shortfall in the budget. (It is no small thing to have your identity and address discovered by anti-choice activists: according to the National Abortion Federation, since the “underground videos” of Planned Parenthood were released in 2015, credible threats of violence against clinics and providers have increased nearly one hundredfold.)

Below are a few of the projects that the Abortion Access Hackathon’s participants came up with.


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